That Miguel Zenón has been recognized as one of the most exciting young alto saxophonists to break into the scene has been known for several years now. So it should come as no surprise when he released a third album, Alma Adentro: The Puerto Rican Songbook, in a loosely constructed trilogy that also included Jibaro (2004) and Esta Plena (2009). While these are all truly fine albums, this last one breaks the mould in both style and substance. First there is the sophisticated playing by the young saxophonist; something that is reflected in the gumption of his viscous ideas that devolve into fires that are fanned by both the jazz and Latin idioms. These cover everything from binary, to secondary and tertiary rhythms, fraught with electrifying, complex structures and there is the small matter of polyphony that turns simple melodies into something so exquisite and breathtaking that a shocking gasp seems to be a regular response solo after solo—from saxophone and piano.
Then there is the inspired arrangements of reeds that penetrate the near impervious fabric of the melodies like the tones of water colours spreading not only on the paper score, but on the entire musical canvas as well. The ingenuity of Guillermo Klein is the most important reason for this—if not the only reason for this. Yet this is not a matter of who came up with the idea of such an imaginative underscore, but how well the two men have articulated the invention. And this is why it is important to posit that both artists have played a role in the magnificent score no matter that Zenón is leading the charge.
His voice is powerful, completely self-assured, like a good generalissimo who is fighting a good fight to save his beloved homeland and its art. He is commanding and humane; singing musical orders in a throaty fashion, yet with a warm, gentle vibrato that turns sharp lines into filigreed curves at almost every end. His soli are graciously ushered in by sweeping swathes of notes that crush the melody into a million bits only to produce innovative interpretations of the narrative, brokered by lush harmonies. The inflections in his voice are perfectly sung—clear and bold as the brass with which his instrument is constructed. “Juguete” and the masterly “Silencio” are exquisite examples of such playing. Moreover, Klein’s swerving, parabolic harmonic inversions encircle the music with such gentility that the music becomes enshrined in a majesty all its own. If it is momentarily forgotten that the music rises out of the folk tradition, then it is entirely forgiven as this music unfolds like an epic, almost heroic poem that creates a mythology all its own. Here too, Klein plays an important role: he finds ways to bring a magisterium of sonority to the horns and flutes that is unsurpassed by much of the use of such instruments used in such beautiful consonance as is done here. To hear the full impact of such a masterful touch the inner ear must simply open to the heartfelt harmonics on “Incomprendido,” “Temes” and “Alma Adentro”.
Finally, there is the matter of sure-footed pianism from Luis Perdomo, absolutely breathtaking bass playing by Hans Glawischnig, who has long since harboured a not-so-secret Alma Latina. Add to this the polyrhythmic ingenuity of the young Henry Cole and the myriad other reasons for this albums success increase exponentially. There have been few albums as memorable as Alma Adentro in the last couple of years at the very least.
Tracks: 1. Juguete; 2. Incomprendido; 3. Silencio; 4. Temes; 5. Perdón; 6. Alma Adentro; 7. Olas y Arenas; 8. Amor; 9. Perfume de Gardenias; 10. Tiemblas.
Personnel: Miguel Zenón: alto saxophone; Luis Perdomo: piano; Hans Glawischnig: bass; Henry Cole: drums; Guillermo Klein: conductor; Nathalie Joachim: flute; Domenica Fossati: flute; Julietta Cuerenton: flute; Romie de Guise-Langlois: clarinet; Carol McGonnell: bass clarinet, clarinet; James Austin Smith: oboe; Brad Balliett: bassoon; Keve Wilson: English horn; Jennifer Kessler: French horn; David Byrd-Marrow: French horn.